Sound — 8
2000 was quite the year for music. The '90s were swiftly winding down, with bands the likes of Limp Bizkit and Korn reaching their career peaks, with nowhere to go but down. Linkin Park already set their sights on watering down the rap-metal era. The White Stripes and The Strokes had not yet taken the rock world by storm. Punk was either hardcore or pop/punk, and hybrid genres like metalcore were only starting to see the light of day. Perhaps by some fluke of timing or, frankly, just putting out one hell of a great record, El Paso post-hardcore band At the Drive-In would put out the record that would go on to define the shape of punk to come, "Relationship Of Command". That album brought so many new things to the punk paradigm in terms of melodicism, dynamics, musicianship, and lyricism, and is regularly hailed as a landmark album for the post-hardcore genre. Unfortunately, less than a year after the album was released, at the height of their popularity, the band would go on an "indefinite hiatus".
The partnership of guitarist/bassist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala would give us the prog-rock extravaganza The Mars Volta, while guitarists Paul Hinojos and Jim Ward, along with drummer Tony Hajjar, would go on to continued success in the post-hardcore genre with Sparta. A brief reunion in 2011 and subsequent breakup as well as a dissolution of Cedric's and Omar's relationship in The Mars Volta would seem to signal an end to the prospects of another reunion, but in 2016, the band decided to reunite and move forward with the release of new music.
And they have finally done just that. "in•ter a•li•a" features the band in a nearly-complete reunion, save for guitarist Jim Ward, who declined to join the band for this reunion, adding Sparta's Keeley Davis (whose only association with any of the classic ATDI lineup is an appearance on Sparta's last album, "Threes") in his stead. Straight from the get-go, the band gets ripping with the tracks "No Wolf Like the Present", "Continuum", and "Tilting at the Univendor", which all show shades of the bands that each member has been in and learned from, whether it be Omar's distinctively complex guitar playing and Cedric's vocals, or the straightforward rhythmic structures emphasized by Keeley Davis, Paul Hinojos (who switches back to bass for his return to ATDI) and Tony Hajjar. The first few songs don't take many progressive turns, but there are shades of the kind of quiet-loud dynamics at play, especially in "Continuum". "Governed by Contagions" is a little bit more laid back, but with no reduction in the rocking-out factor, though it seems to show a bit of a nod to the post-hardcore imitators that ATDI themselves helped to innovate. "Pendulum in a Peasant Dress" plays with a bit more noisy effects, and is classic ATDI through and through. "Incurrably Innocent" starts with a rather menacing chord progression, and it's a really nice riff, but by this point on the record, we start to kind of get the point, and it seems a lot of the songs so far tend to fall into the same formula: Keeley's chord stabs in the right channel, with Omar's noodling in the left channel, all at pretty much the same tempo, with Cedric's same pained vocals on top of it.
It's about this point in the record that it seems the album isn't quite measuring up to "Relationship of Command" standards, with a lot of the dynamicism and variety of that record missing. Luckily, "Call Broken Arrow" adds a different groove to the mix, with some tasty dissonance from Keeley and Omar's guitar playing at its Omar-est. "Holtzclaw" brings us back to the formula, though, but I do really dig the softer middle section in the song. "Torrentially Cutshaw" is promisingly melodic, but Cedric's vocals very much continue in the same vein as they have for the album so far. Another beautiful middle section and Keeley and Omar playing with feedback in between chord stabs tops off this track before getting into the album's penultimate track, "Ghost-Tape No. 9", a much lighter romp than what has preceded it. At first glance, it might be comparable to "Invalid Letter Dept.", but I hear more Mars Volta and Antemasque in it (and maybe a little bit of Hajjar's work in Gone Is Gone) in it. "Hostage Stamps" closes the album by bringing us back to the band's trademark style, and a rather nice, if short, "guitar solo" by Omar.
The production on this album is loud, but far from the compression and loudness of "Relationship of Command", with Rich Costey sharing production duties with Rodriguez-Lopez. The guitar tones on this record will often leave you wondering what the hell is on their pedalboards, but Omar especially goes nuts with choruses, flangers, phasers, and various other effects to warp his guitar sound. And the songwriting is fairly good, despite a lack of variety in the tracks, but listeners who are looking for a bit more "art" in their "art-punk" will probably prefer the second half of the album to the relatively safe first half.
Lyrics — 8
Cedric Bixler-Zavala has never been known for his conciseness in his lyricism, often opting for a path that takes him further and further into obscure vagueness. He does not do much to break this golden rule on "in•ter a•li•a", singing about "kestrels from the knave" and "walking ciphers kicking calendars" in "No Wolf Like the Present", while "Continuum" seems to be a tale of drug abuse, but only from vague clues in lines such as "Placebo buttons maim/All the tattle tails/When the dosage/Doesn't seem to work now", but leaving one wondering what the hell he's talking about when he sings "You might just serve out/The rest of your life soaked in the deprivation of a faraday tank/Laughing your hyena fractures/Of false alarms". The band does take an opportunity to speak out about serious issues like sexual abuse in the track "Incurably Innocent", and Cedric almost gets as blunt as he possibly can with the song's opening verse: "Pray that your family never forgets/The arousal from a corpse that fuels your taste/Blonde to the shoulders, blind to the pill/He found solace in the act of infection". The song is as dark and rousing as anything else on the album, and Cedric's poeticism is not lacking at any point on the track, but the message is brutally emotional, and very reminiscent of the band's work on "Invalid Letter Dept.", a song about the murder of hundreds of women in Ciudad Juarez.
Vocally, Cedric remains as distinctive a vocalist as ever, but mostly seems to rely on a couple of voices this time around, rather than the multi-faceted vocal approach he took in The Mars Volta. This is most definitely not a bad thing, but I definitely found myself enjoying it more when Cedric sings more melodically, which he doesn't do that often on the record. Nonetheless, he still performs very well on this record, and it's amazing that after all of these years, he's still capable of churning out the kind of performances he does.
Overall Impression — 7
Sixteen years is a long time for a band to go without releasing any material, and even though we have vaults of material made by all of the band members in their other projects and bands (Omar Rodriguez-Lopez himself sporting a prodigious 47 solo releases, the most recent of which was released on the same day as this record), many fans of At the Drive-In still held out hopes that the band would come back and put out a record that would match the awe-inspiring power and spellbinding influence that "Relationship of Command" had over the punk and post-hardcore scenes.
Sadly, "in•ter a•li•a" is not going to top "Relationship of Command". That record had many things on its side, like its timing, the fact that it coincided with a rather strained period for the band, as well as it being a breakthrough for what was otherwise a relatively unknown, underground band. Now, with the momentum of nearly two decades of mainstream success, and the fact that the band's 2012 reunion had been unceremoniously announced as a cash grab, it's hard to really see "in•ter a•li•a" as a bona-fide classic. Rather, it's a very competent album by a cast of recently-reunited and well-known musicians, and a possible point of nostalgia for anyone who wants to experience At the Drive-In today. It's well-played, well-written, and well-read.
And yet, strangely, in a weird twist, I feel that the album suffers a bit for it, hence the fact that the overall impression score is lower than the other categories. While the sound is exquisite, and the lyrics are well-written, in a lot of ways, the album as a whole, the overall experience of it, feels a bit like a caricature. Almost an act of self-parody. In no way, shape or form are the members of this band the same people they were in their 20s when they wrote and recorded the albums that would go down in history as classics in their genre. The band's initial breakup was even over the idea that they wanted to branch out musically and try new things. So it seems a little odd for the band to be back together, pretending that they're youthful and exuberant again.
All in all, this isn't a bad album. If you're looking for songs that sound like the old ATDI material, look no further. In all its glory, this band is back and they haven't lost any of their abilities. If anything, their experiences in other bands have made them far superior musicians than they were 16 years ago. But there's some depth and meaning missing from this record. Something a little intangible that playing well and writing great lyrics just doesn't provide.